If Then Else – Marco Etheridge

Week by week, month by month, time slows, and then stalls. The walls of the small garden apartment Serena shares with her husband Theo are closing in on her. She feels like a hermit crab that has outgrown its shell. There is nowhere to go: No restaurants, no cafés, no cinemas, no pubs. Date night is reduced to eating take-out kebaps from the Turkish stand, the two of them curled up on the ever-shrinking couch watching yet another DVD.

As the pandemic erodes everyone’s sanity, Serena measures her tenuous grasp of normality using a simple test. Have I killed Theo today? If no, then sanity remained. If yes, then she has lost it altogether, and too bad for Theo. Else remained to be seen, but Serena reckons it will not be pretty.

The lockdowns, cooldowns, and impending meltdowns hold Theo’s life in a dangerous balance, whether he knows it or not. Weights are added to and removed from the fateful scale by the unseen hands of government health experts and solemn bureaucrats. The apparatchiks decree yet another set of restrictions, another set of bad numbers, and the scales tip closer to a horrible death for Theo. Not his fault, but life is not fair, understandable, or even sane.

Serena doesn’t want to kill Theo. She knows she is better off than most of the women in her circle of friends; friends she now sees only on computer video chats. Theo is a good husband and a good partner. He cooks for her and cares for her. He can fix anything. More than that, he shows her how he’s done it, how she can do it. He never tells her that girls shouldn’t fix things, shouldn’t handle tools.

Sure, this endless pandemic is not Theo’s fault, but the apartment is squeezing in on Serena and she can’t breathe. The constant isolation is pushing her closer and closer to making life and death choices, Theo’s life or death.

In those first worrisome months, brash politicians had brayed that there was nothing to fear. The talking heads spoke of a quick fix. They were all wrong. Ninety days dragged into six months, six months to a year. The first anniversary of the pandemic came and went and still nothing changed. The vaccines were coming, everyone would soon get their jabs. Back to normal, we will soon be back to normal, just another month or so. But for now, just one more lockdown, just a short one this time. Serena heard echoes in an empty room.

Despite all of the empty rhetoric, the glorious promise of soon never appeared. What happened instead were lockdowns, more restrictions. Serena and Theo were marooned, unable to escape to anywhere, unable to travel. The pandemic had clipped their wings. They were travel junkies who could not travel, no more wandering together through Asia, North Africa, Europe. 

Before Corona shrunk her world, Serena dreamed of and then planned their next long flight to some far-flung country. The pandemic sank her expectations to the bottom of a very dark ocean. Her idea of an exotic fantasy now revolves around dinner in an actual restaurant, or a chance to visit the hairdresser.

Theo, her good Buddhist husband, alternates between moping and vindictiveness. He mopes because he cannot get a vaccine and because his world is getting smaller and smaller. He says his horizons were closing in on him. 

Swinging to the opposite pole, he wishes anti-vaxxers dead, calling it natural selection. If they’re too stupid to get their jabs, then they’re too stupid to warrant saving when the virus gets them. Let them die, the sooner the better. The world will be a better, more scientific place. 

Weeks of working from home dull the significance of their weekends, but Theo and Serena make some effort. Another Saturday afternoon, another bench in the local park, the two of them smoking, talking, watching other small islands of isolationists separated by social distance. At least they don’t have to wear masks in the park.

Theo tries to keep it funny, but his words are biting.

“I don’t mean to sound all sour grapes for the folks who can get their jabs even if I can’t. I’m happy for them, I am. But my compassion for the rest of these sonsofbitches is at a ragged end. These stupid anti-vaxxers should be last in line for a hospital bed. It’s a hoax, it’s all a hoax. Wait, oh shit, I’m sick. Oh, take care of me. I don’t want to die. Screw that noise.”

Serena listens to Theo, nodding her head, not disagreeing. She is angry as well, but she needs a tangible outlet for her anger, something real to fight against.

“Right, I get that, I hear your frustration. What makes me crazy is fighting an invisible threat. You can’t see a virus, but it’s everywhere. So we make other people the enemy, stepping off the sidewalk to avoid each other, trying to maintain our stupid safe distance. I want something to hit, you know what I mean?”

“That’s it. I totally get that. It’s impossible to whack a virus with a baseball bat, but it would feel so much better than this interminable waiting.”

“You can make anything, Theo. Couldn’t you make me a tiny little club to smack the virus?”

Theo laughs, looking out over the green of the park.

“It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it? I feel like we’re trapped in a Beckett play: Waiting for the jab. Or some nebulous existential short story, one of those never-ending nightmares written by Kafka.”

As he speaks, the room fades to grey.

If spoken ALOUD ==
“Kafka”:
  print(“LizardCreatures”)
Else:
  print(“PandemicEnnui”) 

The high-pitched shrieks pierce the shared wall between the two apartments. Theo charges into the cramped living room. He is wearing a bicycle helmet and clutching a homemade spear. Serena is crouched at the glass doors, her fingers prying open a slot in the drawn blinds. She peers into the garden, maintaining her watch as Theo hisses questions.

“What’s happening? Are the neighbor kids okay?”

“They’re freaking out. Tara has the door barricaded, but three lizard monsters are trying to scratch their way in.”

“Those scaly sonsofbitches. Nobody eats the neighbor boys, not on our watch.”

No one knew where the lizard creatures came from. They just showed up uninvited and started eating humans. The surviving conspiracy nuts had a field day. The monsters came from a secret government lab, a cloning experiment gone horribly wrong. Others said aliens, bipedal lizard men from some hidden planet. The evangelicals weighed in with divine wrath, but all of it was meaningless babble.

What mattered was that over the course of a week, the earth was overrun with five-foot-tall lizard creatures who walked on their hind legs and had a nasty appetite for human flesh. The scaly monsters sported nasty claws on their stubby front legs and serrated jaws that could and did bite human hands clean off.

There were hordes of the lizardmen roaming everywhere, in every country on earth. Armies and police were overwhelmed. In towns and cities across the planet, citizens and neighbors banded together to meet the threat.

People with guns fought the invaders with bullets. People without guns fought with what they had. Theo fashioned a spear from a butcher knife and a rake handle. Serena wielded an aluminum baseball bat. They went into battle wearing plastic bicycle helmets and heavy leather work gloves.  

“Those scaly sonsofbitches. Nobody eats the neighbor boys, not on our watch.”

“I’m ready, Theo. Same as last time?”

“Same as last time. Out of our garden, in through the other gate, catch them from behind. I stab for the guts. When they hunch over, you bust their ugly skulls with the bat.”

“Ping goes the bat, down go the lizards. Hey, Theo?”

Their eyes meet for a heartbeat.

“I love you.”

“And I love you, Serena. Time to kick some lizard ass, Baby.”

They’re out the door in a crouch, moving as quietly as they can. The lizard monsters are focused on the neighbor’s door, all three of them clawing at it like a snack wrapper. The nasty things are hissing and gurgling like they usually do. They don’t even turn around as Serena and Theo close in on them.

Serena doesn’t wait for Theo to stab the first one. She takes a lunging step, swinging the baseball high over her head. The bat comes down with a metallic ring and a cracking, squishy noise. The lizard man is dead before he hits the ground. 

The pair of remaining reptile attackers swing about. Theo stabs number two before it can move, and Serena finishes it with another smack of the bat. The third one gets in one vicious swipe of its claws before Theo’s spear buries itself in the lizard’s scaly belly. Down comes the bat a third time and it’s all over.

“Shit, Theo, did it get you?”

He holds up one gloved hand, showing her the leather cuff and the clean slice that just missed his wrist.

“Almost. That one was fast. I’ll drag this garbage out of the way while you check on Tara, okay?”

Serena nods and steps to one side. Theo stabs each of the lizard carcasses in the throat, then grabs the first one by its hindfoot and drags it across the grass. Serena steps to the door and knocks.

“Tara, it’s okay, we got ‘em. All clear out here.”

The door opens a crack. A young woman’s face appears, eyes wide with fright. She looks down at the dead carcasses, then up at Serena.

“That’s right, Tara, eyes on me. Are the boys okay?”

The woman nods once, tries to speak, tries again.

“Yes, but they are very frightened. Aki is so little; he does not understand.”

“Tara, where is Bashir?”

“He hears that perhaps there is fuel for sale. He goes to see if it is true.”

Serena tries not to roll her eyes. Yeah, sure, fuel for sale. Good luck with that one, Bashir. And where would you run, even with a full tank of gas?

“Listen, you lock the door and push something heavy in front of it, okay? Go be with the boys. If any more of these things show up, Theo and I will take care of them.”

Tara gives one more frightened nod and then the door closes. Serena waits until she hears the locks clicking. Theo returns after dragging off the last of the dead lizards.

“Is she going to be okay?”

Serena nods, still looking at the door. Then she turns to Theo and smiles.

“I’m hungry. Are you hungry?”

“You bet I am. Killing lizard men works up an appetite. What have we got left?”

“Moldy cheese on crispbread, my handsome husband.”

Theo laughs out loud and she relishes the sound of it.

They move to the garden gate, weapons at the ready. Theo scans the street for marauding monsters, but the coast is temporarily clear. He straightens from a crouch and smiles at her.

“You’re the best wife any man could ask for. You know that, right?”

“You’re just saying that because you almost got your hand sliced off by a lizard monster.”

“Not sure. No matter what happens, no matter what life throws at us, I know we can get through it if we stick together.”

“You are the sweetest man, Theo. I… shit, there’s two more of them sneaking around the bushes across the street.”

“I see them. Are you ready?”

Serena smacks the bat against her gloved hand.

“I woke up ready, Baby”

“I’ll remember that tomorrow.”

Theo pauses as if struck by a sudden revelation.

“I feel like we’re trapped in some weird horror movie.”

“Which one?”

“One of those wobbly found-footage flicks, like something by André Øvredal.”

With those words, the street fades to black.

If spoken ALOUD ==
“Øvredal”:
  print(“PandemicEnnui”)
Else:
  print(“LizardCreatures”)

Theo waves a forefinger at his laptop screen. He is sputtering profanity as if he’s been struck with a sudden bout of Tourette’s. Serena waits until actual words form in Theo’s mouth.

“What the fuck is next, Serena? We lived through Lockdown 3.0 without killing each other. We got our first jabs, then seconds, and now a damn booster. We’ve played by all of the rules while unmasked morons protest in the streets. And now these experts say we may have to booster the boosters?”

Serena has nothing to offer and knows that nothing is going to soften the blow. Say the thing, say it true. Rip the bandaid off fast.

“Theo, I know, I get it, but don’t break your laptop, okay? How else are you going to maintain the flood of bad news?”

Theo spins away from the screen, eyes blazing, ready for a fight. He sees Serena’s goofy smile, tries to hold onto his anger, and fails miserably. A giggle spills out of Theo, then from Serena, then they are both sagging back on the couch. Their laughter has a touch of the manic, too loud amidst the clutter of books and stuffed animals.

Serena is the first to push herself upright. She pokes Theo in the ribs, her fingers dancing like daggers between his flailing hands. 

She pokes him one too many times and the anger floods back. Theo grabs Serena’s wrists, pinning her. He wants to throw her through the glass doors, smash out into the garden, tromp around on the flowers like Godzilla loose in Tokyo.

Then Theo looks into Serena’s eyes, sees the hurt there, and lets go.

“Sorry, Baby, sorry, I just…” 

She runs a hand over his mouth, stopping his words. Her touch is gentle now, and her smile is sad.

“It’s okay, Theo. I get it. You don’t know how lucky you are to be alive. I’ve come close to murdering you at least twenty times since this goddamn plague started.”

Theo pulls her hand away, gentle this time. 

“Really?”

“Very much really, my beautiful Theo.”

“And how were you planning on murdering me?”

The sadness disappears from Serena’s smile.

“Oh, you know, all the classics. Chef’s knife in the back while you were busy cooking. In that scenario, you ended up sizzling on the stove.”

“Nice! That’s got some great noir horror to it. What else?”

Serena shifts back on the couch, going into what Theo calls her thinking pose.

“Well, poison, ‘natch, and pushing you down the stairs, except we don’t have any. I thought about a pillow over your face while you were sleeping, but that would turn into a wrestling match which would turn into sex, so obviously not a good murder ploy.”

Theo sags back beside Serena, runs a hand up and down her thigh. His fingers wander to the waistband of her sweatpants, searching for a way inside. She giggles and bats the hand away.

“No way, I need a shower before we start acting out any porno murder scenes.”

Theo sits upright, turns to face Serena.

“We’re so lucky, you know that, right?”

“We are very lucky, but what are you talking about?”

Theo waves his hands around, alternately pointing to himself to her, to the messy living room.

“I mean, yeah, this whole thing sucks, like being on house arrest. But what if we were alone? What if this happened when we were just dating? This has got to be a nightmare for people stuck in that situation?”

Serena nods her head, waving her hands as well.

“Sure, that’s tough, but what about the moms and dads that are stuck in little apartments with two or three kids? How do you explain to a toddler that he can’t play with the other grubby little toddlers?”

Theo shakes his hands in front of her, like a TV evangelist imploring folks at home to send in their donations.

“That’s it, that’s it exactly. That’s why we’re so lucky. We’ve managed to get through two years of this shit without murdering each other. We don’t have kids to worry about. We’re strong together and we still love each other.”

Theo flops back onto the couch, slips an arm around Serena and pulls her close. He shakes his head and a bitter laugh bursts out of him.

“It’s a hell of a thing. And we’re going to need all the luck we can get. Who knows how long the shit is going to drag on? First it was Corona, then Delta, and now the Omicron. And then what? We just sit here and wait for the next mutation.”

As he speaks the word, the room fades to grey.

If spoken ALOUD ==
“Mutation”:  
print(“FlyingLizardCreatures”)
Else:
  print(“PandemicEnnui”)

The screams echo in the narrow street beyond the garden. Theo peers around the juniper hedge, trying to see where the lizardmen are coming from. He clutches his homemade spear at the ready. Serena is crouched beside him, gloved fingers wrapped around her baseball bat. She stares up into the sky, maintaining her watch as Theo hisses questions.

“What’s happening? Where the fuck are they coming from?”

“Bad news, My Love.”

Theo follows Serena’s pointing hand, sees three awkward black silhouettes winging down out of the sky. He hears her speaking words that don’t make sense.

“I know it’s not possible, Theo, but those scaly sonsofbitches have learned to fly…”

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